Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Edward Capern

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THE Postman Poet, Edward Capern, has been hailed as the Devonshire Burns, but he has no right to be so entitled. Burns, at his best, sang in the tones and intonation of his class and country, and it was at his worst that he affected the style of the period and of culture, such as it was. Now Capern aspired to the artificiality and smoothness of the highly educated and wholly unreal class of verse writers of the Victorian period, of whom John Oxenford may be thrust forward as typical, men who could turn out smooth and finished pieces, rhythm and rhyme correct, but without a genuine poetical idea forming the kernel of the "poem."

What can be said for verses that begin as this to the Wild Convolvulus?

Upon the lap of Nature wild
I love to view thee, Beauty's child;
And mark the rose and lily white
Their charms in thy fair form unite.

And this to the White Violet?

Pale Beauty went out 'neath a wintry sky
From a nook where the gorse and the holly grew by,
And silently traversed the snow-covered earth
In search of a sign of floriferous birth.

And this to an Early Primrose?

Pretty flow'ret, sweet and fair,
Pensive, weeping, withering there;
Storms are raging, winds are high,
I fear thy beauty soon will die.

Who is not familiar with this sort of stuff? It is to be found in "Keepsakes," in those old pocket-books in leather, with a dozen badly engraved steel-plate landscape scenes at the beginning, and a budget of verses and rhapsodies that follow, before we come to the calendar and the sheets for notes.

Of himself, Capern wrote:—

He owns neither houses nor lands,
His wealth is a character good;
A pair of industrious hands,
A drop of poetical blood.

It was a drop, and a small drop. He had an ear for rhythm; he had a warm appreciation of Nature; he had sentiment—but not ideas, the germs of mental life to be carried on from generation to generation. The leaves of poetic expression, graceful diction, fade and wither. It is ideas alone that are the fruit of the tree of mental life that will survive. Of such we find none in Capern's volumes.

His verses are very creditable to the man, considering his position, but he is not to be named in the same breath with Robert Burns and Edwin Waugh. Capern had the poetic faculty, but he trod wrong paths, with the result that nobody henceforth will read his verses, which are not likely to be republished. Edward Capern was born at Tiverton on 21 January, 1819, where his father carried on business as a baker. When Edward was about two years old, the family removed to Barnstaple, and his mother becoming bed-ridden, young Edward, then about eight years old, found employment at a local lace factory, toiling often, for a scanty wage, twenty out of the twenty-four hours. The long hours and the trying nature of the work permanently injured his eyesight, and seriously affected his after life.

Edward Capern - Devonshire characters and strange events.jpg

From a painting by William Widgery, in the free Library, Bideford

Compelled to abandon his work in the factory in 1847, he ultimately obtained the post of letter-carrier from Bideford to Buckland Brewer and its neighbourhood, distributing the mail through a discursive walk of thirteen miles daily, and receiving a salary of half a guinea per week.

Capern's first book of Poems was published in 1856. A Mr. W. F. Rock, having seen his verses, thought there was merit in them, and undertook to collect subscribers; and by worrying certain noblemen into taking four, five, or six copies, and canvassing through the county, he succeeded in getting enough subscribers to enable him to publish.

But Capern wanted to have all he had written included. Mr. Rock had to be firm.

"What!" exclaimed Capern. "Exclude my ’Morning’ and the 'Apostrophe to the Sun'! Why, sir, I wrote those pieces when I had but four shillings a week to live upon, which gave but frugal meals."

Precisely, but that did not constitute them poems. Mr. Rock says: "It is not my intention even to touch upon the trying incidents of Mr. Capern's early life. He is a rural letter-carrier … for which his salary is ten shillings and sixpence per week. He has a real poet's wife; his Jane, a charming brunette, is intelligent, prudent, and good. He has two children, Charles, a boy of seven, and Milly, a girl just three years of age.

"Mr. Capern's features have a striking resemblance to those of Oliver Goldsmith; he has also the Doctor's sturdy build, though not his personal height. Nor is this the only point of resemblance to our dear Goldy. Mr. Capern has an ear for music, he plays touchingly on the flute, and sings his own songs to his own tunes with striking energy or tenderness."

He certainly enjoyed his life as a postman. He says:

O, the postman's life is as happy a life
As any one's, I trow;
Wand'ring away where dragon-flies play,
And brooks sing-soft and low;
And watching the lark as he soars on high,
To carol in yonder cloud,
"He sings in his labours, and why not I?"
The postman sings aloud.

In 1858, Capern published a second volume, entitled Ballads and Songs, and in 1865 a third, Wayside Warbles. There was yet another, The Devonshire Melodist, in which he set his own songs to tunes of his own composition. But here again he was at fault. Devonshire is full of folk music of the first order. Burns set his songs to folk tunes then sung by the people, but to gross words. He rescued the melodies by giving to them verses that could be sung by decent and clean-minded people. Now had Capern done this for the music of the neighbourhood of Barnstaple he would have been remembered along with these delicious airs, as is Burns along with the Scotch melodies. But not so, he must set his verses to the tootling of his own pipe, entirely without melodious idea in the tunes.

Probably Edward Capern had never heard of Edwin Waugh, who wrote the most delicious, simple, and sweet poems in Lancashire and Yorkshire dialect; every one is a gem. Probably, had he seen these, Capern would have despised them. They breathe the life, the passion, the tenderness, the genius of the North-countrymen. Capern's verses have none of this merit. They are respectable vers de société, such as any man of culture could have written. His great achievement was, that, not being a man of culture, he could write such respectable "poems." He took a wrong course from the outset; and unhappily he maintained it. What tells its own tale is this. Next to the British Museum, the London Library is the largest in the Metropolis, and it has not been deemed worth while to include in it one of Capern's volumes of verses.

His last volume published was Sun-gleams and Shadows (1881), and, unless I am mistaken, all owed their success to subscribers.

In 1866 Capern left Marine Gardens, Bideford, and went to live at Harborne, near Birmingham. His verses found their way into various periodicals, Fun and Hood's Comic Annual. But his heart was in his native county and thither he returned. He received a pension from the Civil List of £40 a year, which was afterwards increased to £60. It was due to his wife's ill-health that he left the neighbourhood of Birmingham in 1884, and rented a pleasant cottage at Braunton. There he lost his wife in February, 1894. The two old people had been tenderly attached, and her admiration for and pride in her husband were unbounded. He did not long survive her, for he died on 4 June in the same year as his wife, and they were buried side by side in the churchyard of Heanton Punchardon. The expenses of his funeral were defrayed by the Baroness BurdettCoutts, to whom he had dedicated the second volume of his poems.

It was unfortunate for Capern in a measure that he had been patted on the back by such men as James Anthony Froude, who wrote of him in Fraser's Magazine: "Capern is a real poet, a man whose writings will be like a gleam of summer sunshine in every household which they enter"; and Walter Savage Landor, who pronounced him to be "a noble poet"; also Alfred Austin, who wrote of him:—

O, Lark-like Poet: carol on,
Lost in dim light, an unseen trill:
We, in the Heaven where you are gone,
Find you no more, but hear you still.

In the summer of 1864, the American literary blacksmith, Elihu Burritt, spent three days with Capern, on his "Walk from London to the Land's End and back," and gave an excellent description of his host. He says: "Edward Capern, of Bideford, is a poet, and he is a postman, and both at once, and good at each. He is as faithful and genial a postman as ever dropped a letter in a cottage door, with an honest and welcome face, itself a living epistle of good will and friendly cheer. I can attest to that most confidently; for I went with him in his pony-cart two days on his rural rounds. That he is a poet who has written songs that will live and have a pleasant place among the productions of genius, I am equally confident, though pretending to be no connoisseur in such matters myself. Better judges have awarded to them a high degree of merit. Already a considerable volume of his songs and ballads has gone to its second edition; and he has sufficient matter on hand to make another of equal size and character. His postal beat lies between Bideford and Buckland Brewer, a distance of more than six miles. Up to quite a recent date, he walked this distance twice a day in all weathers; starting off on winter mornings while it was yet dark. Having grown somewhat corpulent and short-winded, he has mounted, within a year or two, a pony-cart, that carries him up and down the long, steep hills on his course. It takes him till noon to ascend these to Buckland and distribute letters and papers among the hamlet cottages and roadside farmhouses on the way. Having reached the little town on the summit-hill, and left his bag at the post-office, he has three hours to wait before setting out on his return journey. These are his writing hours; and he spends them in a little, antique, thatched cottage in one of the village streets. Here, seated at one end of a long deal table, while the cottager's wife and daughters are plying their needles, and doing all their family work at the other, he pens down the thoughts that have passed through the flitting visions of his imagination while alone on the road. Here he wrote most of his first book of ballads, and here he is working up his glowing rollicking songs for a new volume. Sometimes the poetic inspiration comes in upon him like a flood on his way. He told me that he once brought home with him six sonnets on six different subjects, which he had thought out and penned in one of his daily beats. When the news of the taking of the Redan reached England, the very inner soul of his patriotism was stirred within him to the proudest emotion. As he walked up and down the long hills with his letter-bags strapped to his side, the thoughts of the glory his country had won came into his mind with a half-suffocating rush, and he struggled, nearly drowned by them, to give them forms of speech. The days were short, the road was long, and hard to foot, and the rules of the postal service were rigid. He could not hold fast the thoughts the event stirred within him until he reached the cottage. Some of the best of them would flit out of his memory, if he delayed to pen them as they arose. So he ran with all his might and main for a third of a mile, all panting with the race for time, found he had caught enough of it for pencilling on his knee a whole verse of the song. Thus he ran and wrote, each stanza costing him a race that made the hot perspiration fall upon the soiled and crumpled paper, on which he brought home to a wife prouder than himself of the song,—'The Lion Flag of England.'"